Usher and The Neptunes used to make beautiful music together. That was back in 2001—in Trekkie language, that’s stardate 8701 to be exact. Funny how time flies because in damn near ten years since Usher’s flawless effort, he didn’t just lose his main squeeze Chilli, marry Tameka Foster Raymond, and balance a nice guy-bad boy personality disorder, his albums have been missing that x-factor, Skateboard P.
Leading up to each of Usher’s studio efforts, the internet is host to throwaway tracks from studio sessions between the winning trifecta of Chad, P, and Usher. We didn’t stutter, yes, winning! “U Don’t Have to Call” and “I Don’t Know” (accented by Diddy’s jiggy-ass raps) were no flash in the pan. The rest of the songs, while many are good, weren’t best suited as singles. We’d settle for album cuts, but that seems more like lateral movement than the vertical trajectory the Virginia boys were headed in 2001. So in light of this long lost recording relationship, we dug up 9 tracks from Usher’s vault. Until these stars align again, read our Neptunes x Usher discourse below.
Usher, “Don’t Take It Personal”
Between 8701 and Confessions there was a weird lull of what Usher was doing musically. Coming off his third, most personal album to date, the doors were wide open into Usher’s life dating Chilli from TLC. Whether or not she would still be his muse, the fact is, Usher was keeping it real, so to speak. Anything less would have been a huge disconnect. Well it got that far on The Masterpiece, Usher’s unreleased fourth album. The material was all over the place. To better put it, if Usher didn’t dig deep for Confessions, he probably would have caught a major brick. It was more like his experimental stage where a lot of things went somewhat right and terribly wrong. Rather than be Usher the ladies man, he was just that really talented guy that could sing and move like Michael Jackson on leaked songs with Sean Paul (from the Youngbloodz) and Mike Jones. The Neptunes helped produce him as “that dude”—the one guys could learn from, in knowing how to recover when going blank at the sight of a pretty lady’s face. To be cool, calm and collected even after he admits to being a player, that’s what we’d come to expect in the life and times of Usher Raymond.
Download: Usher, “Don’t Take It Personal”
Usher f. Pharrell, “Only One”
Don’t kill the messenger, but it is possible to actually feel conflicted about leading a bachelor life. Having your cake and eating it too is one of those common threads that brought out the best in Usher and Pharrell. Come to think of it, ice cream might be a better metaphor for guys and their treats given P’s BBC/Ice Cream brand. When Usher claims to be the victim on “Only One” he sticks to his formula of turning the tables, or transfer of emotion if you know the science of never letting them see you sweat. Too bad this record is so poorly mastered with P’s falsetto bleeding over the chorus that it’s hard to take it as a true finished product.
Download: Usher f. Pharrell, “Only One”
Usher, “I Heard A Rumor”
The unspoken rule of girlfriends being off limits to the guy’s best friend, just doesn’t apply on “I Heard A Rumor.” The scenario has been played out from Snoop Dogg’s perspective, and there’s no recovery from a response like, “Yo’ bitch chose me.” Usher tells it a little differently being nice enough to talk to the guy who he’s stealing the girl from. Even though the song is one cliché, and two didn’t crossover, at least Aaron McGrudder found a way to immortalize the predicament.
Download: Usher, “I Heard A Rumor”
Usher, “What’s A Guy Supposed to Do”
You know who else knows what it feels like to split from their equally famous, mega-superstar girlfriend? Justin Timberlake! The Neptunes are like the relationship counselors of pop/R&B dudes. Usher and JT were major clients that bear all about their heartbreak. Part of the problem though is that JT benefitted from an entire album worth of hit songs by The Neptunes than the two Ush had on 8701. As for who profitted from the best of Neptunes’ hot streak in the 2000s—that one that pits them as the producers of the decade—yeah, JT wins by a landslide. Being two of the highest selling male pop acts of the last 10 years, it’s natural they would have “friendly competition.” By no means are Usher and Justin Timberlake the heir apparent to Prince and Michael Jackson, they do have their similarities as entertainers, and of course MJ and Prince had to share Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Here, “What’s A Guy Gotta Do” was originally Justin Timberlake’s joint, which was eventually given to Usher. Ah, what a way to share the wealth.
Download: Usher, “What’s A Guy Supposed to Do”
Usher f. Vanessa Marquez, “Sweet Lies”
Most of the versions of “Sweet Lies” have been tagged as part of advance copies of In My Mind. OK, so a song from Pharrell’s solo album, featuring Usher as the lead, and the girl singing background on JT’s “Rock Your Body” is what we should have expected from P’s official introduction to the spotlight? If only that was the case. Despite being a curveball compared to the majority of songs spearheaded by P on the album, it seems more fitting on the feature-heavy compilation, The Neptunes Present… Clones. Being the super-producer, Pharrell has penned songs, and even recorded reference versions where artists will go in and beef up his framework of ideas into multi-platinum bangers. “Sweet Lies” could possibly be one of those records that P orchestrated where Usher is the vessel to give it legs.
Download: Usher f. Vanessa Marquez, “Sweet Lies”
Usher f. Pharrell, “Wifey”
There’s no denying the influence of Quincy Jones’ synergy with Michael Jackson playing a part in how The Neptunes have one of the most educated pallettes with how they’ve brought out the best in Usher, who was compared most to the Gloved One. When they ad-lib “ow’s” and “ho’s” it’s their nod to great moments in music history like Off The Wall. Here’s another jewel that has been linked to an unreleased version of Pharrell’s In My Mind.
Download: Usher f. Pharrell, “Wifey”
With Here I Stand, we saw another side of Usher—the married parent. There are different activities that take prescenence with Usher’s newfound level of maturity. Old flames die out, the player card has been traded in, and you make love in the club, with your wifey though. Since making “Love In This Club” as the lead single from his 2008 opus, Usher has slowed things down to the heavy 808s of Polow Da Don, which is more reminiscent of Timbaland’s earlier work with Missy Elliot and Ginuwine. It’s definitely working with Polow’s beats making Usher more of the aggressor with the ladies (see “Lil Freak“). Unfortunately falling in and out of love the way he’s done on the better part of his work with The Neptunes, isn’t where his heart lies now.
Download: Usher, “Flash”
One of the great parts of a Neptunes song is the bridge. It’s that part after about say two verses, or sometimes three when the record climaxes. Usher took his bridge to the max on “U Don’t Have To Call,” and since then, “Certified” is one of the few times he shows potential of reaching the bar he once set so high. Damn, so close, but no cigar.
Download: Usher, “Certified”
Jay-Z f. Usher and Pharrell, “Anything”
Hate or love Jigga’s 9th album for being underwhelming in it’s ability to still coin him as the best rapper allive, he managed to be an even greater mediator to host Usher and Pharrell in their tribute to strippers. So what the trend of making it rain in gentlemen’s clubs tapered off, the amount of stock between Hov and Usher as co-owners of basketball teams is enough money to keep asses in the seats ’til, kingdom come. Thank The Neptunes once again for putting the fire under Ursher.
Download: Jay-Z f. Usher and Pharrell, “Anything”